June 12, 2017

Unconscious bias

We’re holding a day to Showcase Diversity at the University of Warwick on 14 June. I hope staff and students join us to play their part in celebrating and advancing our commitment to equality and diversity at Warwick.

Christine Ennew, Provost at Warwick, comments here on how our unconscious bias can impact inclusion, and how our understanding of ourselves and others can drive a willingness to discuss our diversity in a respectful way.

Last weekend, I found myself watching “The Imitation Game” – for a second time. If you haven’t seen the movie it’s a biopic of pioneering computer scientist, Alan Turing. It documents the work he did during the Second World War, breaking the Enigma code - an achievement which may have shortened the war by as much as two years. That in itself makes for a good story but it’s all framed by his sexuality and the way he was treated as a consequence – treatment that ultimately resulted in his suicide a decade later. Aside from the moral dimension of this tragedy, his early death was a massive loss for the UK in terms of the development of digital technologies.Similarly, when Dorothy Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964, the Daily Mail allegedly recognised her achievement with the headline "Oxford housewife wins Nobel prize".

The bias that Alan Turing and Dorothy Hodgkin experienced was very open and explicit bias; indeed it was embodied in the legal frameworks of the time. But we’ve moved a long way since those times. We are getting so much better at recognising and celebrating diversity. We know the moral arguments for equality and we know the economic case for diversity.

We continue to confront challenges in relation to bias; not the overt and explicit bias experienced by Dorothy Hodgkin or Alan Turing, but the unconscious bias that emerges in causal, daily actions and behaviour. It’s the bias associated with stereotyping, with rules of thumb and with all of the shortcuts that our brains make to help us cope with the intensity and complexity of our daily lives.

Along with some of my colleagues from the Warwick’s executive team, I recently joined a training session on “unconscious bias”. The session was designed not to eliminate biases, but to make us more aware of how our judgements of individuals and our behaviours may be influenced by our backgrounds, experiences and cultural environments. As well as raising awareness of our own individual and diverse biases, the training session also sought to help us to understand how our biases impact on others. Often those affected by unconscious bias are those who are in a minority and perhaps more likely to feel vulnerable because they are different. But all too often, we simply don’t know how others will react, how they will feel when they experience unconscious bias.

We are all likely to be affected by unconscious bias – because we may display it through our actions or because we experience it in our interactions with others. Because unconscious bias is an almost instinctive or automatic reaction, it can be difficult to eliminate. But we can mitigate its impact – through our awareness and understanding of ourselves, through our attempts to understand the experiences and feelings of others and through a willingness to discuss in a respectful way.

I hope colleagues and students at Warwick join us at our day to Showcase Diversity on 14 June.

Christine Ennew Provost sig


- 4 comments by 1 or more people

  1. Mairi Ann Cullen

    It is good to know that Warwick’s executive team have taken part in the Unconscious Bias training. I really like that Provost Chris Ennew has blogged about her reflections on this training and has acknowledged that, because unconscious bias is, by definition, ‘almost instinctive or automatic’, the purpose of the training is not to eliminate it but to raise our self-awareness. If we then use our self-awareness to become more open to making the effort to try to understand others and to be more willing to talk to each other respectfully, this will help to reduce the impact our unconscious biases have on others. White British working class young men and Afro-Caribbean young men are under-represented groups at Russell Group universities – it would be good to learn more about their experiences of everyday, casual bias and stereo-typing so that this situation can be addressed. Meanwhile, thank you to our Provost for highlighting unconscious bias in her blog.

    13 Jun 2017, 10:15

  2. Mairi Ann Cullen

    It is good to know that Warwick’s executive team have taken part in the Unconscious Bias training. I really like that Provost Chris Ennew has blogged about her reflections on this training and has acknowledged that, because unconscious bias is, by definition, ‘almost instinctive or automatic’, the purpose of the training is not to eliminate it but to raise our self-awareness. If we then use our self-awareness to become more open to making the effort to try to understand others and to be more willing to talk to each other respectfully, this will help to reduce the impact our unconscious biases have on others. White British working class young men and Afro-Caribbean young men are under-represented groups at Russell Group universities – it would be good to learn more about their experiences of everyday, casual bias and stereo-typing so that this situation can be addressed. Meanwhile, thank you to our Provost for highlighting unconscious bias in her blog.

    13 Jun 2017, 10:15

  3. Gerard Sharpling

    I too fully support Provost Chris Ennew’s comments and would also encourage people to take a look at this. Chris’s examples are poignant and useful – unconscious bias as we know exists in many different ways and affects how employees either make progress or stagnate within an institution, as well as gain employment in the first place. So it is something that affects us all.

    To take one simple example, I believe that in universities (and of course, other large organisations too) we are still influenced unduly by the way people speak (rather than what they actually think). Accents and manners of speech trigger a large amount of unconscious bias in people’s minds and this is then reflected in the sort of workforce you get – people who essentially ‘speak’ in the same way, use the same vocabulary, know all the same jargon and acronyms and can bandy them about effectively in meetings. In this way there can be an organic growth of an institutional culture which unconsciously selects people on the basis of ‘sameness’ rather than difference, and serves to replicate rather than challenge inequality. That is something that all employers, including universities, need to think about.

    I fully support Mairi’s comments too – it seems very clear to me that more qualitative research is needed to examine this issue and to sound out the experiences of those who feel they have been excluded or discriminated against for whatever reason. I hope this is sort of exploratory work is something that the university will consider.

    With thanks again to our Provost for raising such an important issue.

    13 Jun 2017, 12:25

  4. Chris Ennew

    Thanks to both Mairi Ann and Gerard – appreciate you taking the time to comment and thanks for your supportive remarks. I know there is research being done that links to some of these issues and following on from comments raised by another colleague, I was directed to this article:

    http://www.chronicle.com/article/Can-We-Really-Measure-Implicit/238807

    which (although critical) highlights some of the debates in this area. I did try out the tests available at Harvard’s Project Implicit website, https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html which explore implicit biases in more detail. If you have 10 minutes, its an interesting experience.

    20 Jun 2017, 21:54


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